This week we have reviews of 3 books by students of John Myers at OISE. In case you don’t remember these book reviews were part of a class project about breathing some new life into old courses.

Alias Grace – timely – CBC mini-series 

The Hanging of Angelique

Selling Canada

Review of Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Review by Rachel Burton

Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace follows the story of Grace Marks, a servant convicted and sentenced to life in prison for two murders. The novel is based on factual events occurring in 1843 in Toronto, Ontario. Atwood uses historical documents of the time and the writings of Susanna Moodie to tell the story of the horrific murders that shocked people of the time and ended with Marks’ life sentence and her partner’s execution. Not part of the actual events, Atwood adds an American psychiatrist who comes to the Kingston Penitentiary to study Marks. As a Canadian author, Atwood captivates her audience through vivid descriptions of Toronto and rural Ontario during the mid-ninetieth century. Canadian readers are taken back in time as they learn this particularly dark and scandalous history. Many people, both from the time and now, believe Marks was not executed because of her beauty and femininity.

Atwood’s historical fiction could be introduced to the Grade 7 History course. The course looks at Canada’s earlier history and focuses on first contact, technological advancements, and the forming of Canada’s political parties. The novel could be used to show continuity and change in Canada’s penal system. Students could investigate what has changed or what has remained the same in Canada’s judicial system. The novel could also be examined through this lens but with issues relating to femininity. Marks was accused of being let off easy because at the time women were not considered perpetrators of violent crimes while her male partner was publicly executed. Students could examine the stereotypes and treatment of women during the mid-ninetieth century in Canada. Both examples provided above, Canadian judicial system and perceptions of women, would fulfill the following curriculum expectation: B1.1 analyse social and political values and significant aspects of life for some different groups in Canada between 1800 and 1850. The novel could also be used cross-curricularly with geography. Atwood provides many detailed descriptions of the Canadian landscape. Students could engage in a creative task and draw these images or use these passages as a model for writing their own historical fiction. Students could also investigate whether these descriptions of Canada are historically accurate.

In all, Atwood’s Alias Grace can serve as an effective pedagogical resource in the Grade 7 History Curriculum.

Two Reviews of Afua Cooper’The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal

Review 1 by Karima Ahmad

In order to revamp the Grade 12 Canada: History, Identity, Culture curriculum at the University level, I recommend integrating the novel The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal. The novel was written by historian and poet Afua Cooper and was published in 2006. Cooper pieces together the life, trial and execution of Marie-Joseph Angelique while also revealing the sad reality behind bondage and slavery in Canada. The retelling is based on archival information including trial transcripts, correspondence, wills and hospital records. The content of the novel explores the factual story of a young black woman who was trying to escape from her slave owner in Montreal by, allegedly, resorting to arson. Cooper’s novel is an informative piece that addresses the dark side of Canadian history which, in return, promotes critical thinking and inquiry for Grade 12 University students.

I would shape this unit based on Section B of the curriculum which is concerned with the origins of Canada until 1774 because the burning of Old Montreal and the execution of Angelique took place in 1734. The unit would take on an inquiry-based approach where students would be required to bring Canada’s historical identity into question: was Canada a sanctuary for slaves or an endorser of slavery?

I envision my senior students performing mock trials in groups where they either defend or accuse Angelique of burning the village of Old Montreal. They must incorporate primary sources into the trial while also addressing issues surrounding slavery and whether Angelique was a servant or a prisoner held against her own will. Students would also be asked to write an essay that confirms or refutes Cooper’s findings after performing independent research projects surrounding the history of Canada and Canada’s identity in relation to bondage and slavery. 

Review 2 by Daniella Naumovski

The main idea of the book was a story and narrative of slavery in Canada during the 1700s with the primary character who was a Portuguese-born Black woman named Marie-Joseph Angelique who was sold into slavery. The story is very compelling and goes through how she was convicted of starting a fire that destroyed a significant part of Montreal in 1734 and she was condemned to death in a very awful way. This narrative brings to the forefront the core issue of slavery in New France and Canada in a general sense. Most people think of slavery as being a fixture in the American narrative with the abolitionist movement and the American Civil War but Cooper clearly illustrates that slavery was also commonplace in Canada in the past. It is definitely not the historical narrative I was taught in school. The book goes into great detail about the historical context in Montreal at the time and how Angelique was perceived to be a “rebellious slave” because she was not submissive. This massive fire in Montreal caused a lot of damage and the town looked for someone to find guilty and pointed the finger at Angelique. She declared her innocence but she was tortured so badly that she gave in and admitted to starting the fire.

It would be appropriate for grade 7 because it does at times have graphic content and I think that intermediate students would be capable of handling the information. It also heavily relates to the curriculum expectations for grade 7 history. It is an authentic and first-hand historical account of life in New France in 1734. The book is a fairly easy read as well which would make it more accessible for students although I still think there should be a word wall where all the key historical terminology is displayed. It is an extremely powerful story and Cooper’s vivid imagery evokes a lot of emotion and makes things very real. I believe that this could be integrated into a grade 7 classroom where students are looking at the specific historical concept or idea of slavery in New France during 1713-1800. Students could also be taught the different disciplinary thinking concepts through the book; I believe that the ethical dimension historical thinking concept would be relevant because this is a very controversial and ethically driven side of Canadian history. I think that this book heavily relates to the political environment we are currently experiencing; students need a better understanding that Canadian history is not all about our triumphs and successes. Canada also has some dark secrets that need to be taught to students. It also can heavily relate to racism and discrimination today and the attitudes and ideologies that are still prevalent that oppress racialized peoples. I think that this centres on a social justice lens and allows for students to critically think about the historical event and relate it to what is happening in the world. I think that this can be a key question that guides a unit on New France for grade sevens and really allows them to inquire and reflect on this part of Canadian history and develop their own inquiry questions as well. I think that presenting various historical perspectives would also be beneficial for the kids because you get to see Angelique’s perspective which is not always a perspective that is heard or valued. This is not exactly something that is explicitly discussed in the curriculum so really it is up to the teacher and what they deem important to teach to students. Students in this grade seven unit on New France in 1713-1800 would have a heightened understanding of the different social values at the time and then make cross comparisons with today. They would also again get to see if these are still issues and challenges that our society is still facing and what people are doing about it.

Review of Francis, Daniel. (2012). Selling Canada: Immigrants, soldiers, tourists, and the building of our nation. Vancouver, BC: Stanton Atkins & Dosil Publishers 

Review by Luca Schiavone

Selling Canada: Immigrants, Soldiers, Tourists, and the Building of our Nation discusses the influx of posters and pamphlets made from 1850 onward to “sell” Canada at home and abroad. The book is divided into three major time periods when Canada used aggressive poster and pamphlet campaigns to establish itself as a destination for immigrants and tourists and turned itself into proud defenders of western civilization. In doing so, Francis argues they transformed the way Canadians and outsiders thought about Canada, inadvertently providing the foundation for nationhood. The posters and pamphlets used in each campaign produced images expressing what Canadians believed to be fundamental about their country. However, Francis argues that those images were incomplete and misleading, providing an idealized portrait of Canada rather than a realistic snapshot. 

In the Grade 8 curriculum streams A (Creating Canada) and B (A changing society) the focus is on the creation and building of Canada. I selected both of these streams because the focus of the book covers the same timeline (1850-1914).  Additionally, two major Big Ideas from each stream are complimentary to another. In Stream A one of the Big Ideas is, “People in Canada had different reactions to the creation and expansion of the country.” And in Stream B one of the Big Ideas is, “The struggles of individuals and groups in Canada at this time lay the groundwork for some of the rights we have today.” Additionally, many of the specific expectations have examples of simply “immigration” without much description. Given these guidelines I believe that this book would help give descriptive features and highlight multiple narratives that the curriculum does not highlight. Additionally, the book has numerous primary sources, specifically, posters and pamphlets, that students can analyze which would enhance the curriculum expectations. More so, the book follows the same timeline as the Grade 8 curriculum and offers thematic analysis as well. For Stream A, teachers could use this book to inquire into thematic measures Canada used to make itself seem more appealing as a means to expand the Dominion. For example, in Stream B students could compare and explore what was advertised and promised in the 1890s to the British population to what is advertised and promised to Syrian refugees coming to modern day Canada. To extend this idea students could even inquire into the immigrant experiences of the past and present to explore the historical thinking concept of continuity and change.

Contributing Writer

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